Creating and Sustaining Suspense

There is an article on suspense in the Writer’s Digest online blog by Steven James, one of the Writer’s Digest editors, that was recently featured but dated nearly seven years ago.  He discusses six techniques for crating and sustaining suspense, which I think are quite good.

1. Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy

Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.

We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathise, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

2. Include more promises and less action.

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is payoff. You don’t increase suspense by “making things happen,” but by promising that they will. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”

Stories are much more than reports of events. Stories are about transformations. We have to show readers where things are going—what situation, character or relationship is going to be transformed.

3. Keep every promise you make.

In tandem with making promises is the obligation of keeping them. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff.

When stories falter it’s often because the writers didn’t make big enough promises, didn’t fulfill them when readers wanted them to be fulfilled, or broke promises by never fulfilling them at all.

Here’s a great way to break your promise to the reader: Start your story with a prologue, say, in which a woman is running on a beach by herself, and there are werewolves on the loose. Let’s see if you can guess what’s going to happen. Hmm … what a twist this is going to be—she gets attacked by the werewolves! Wow. What a fresh, original idea that was.

How is that a broken promise? Because it was predictable. Readers want to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They’re only satisfied when the writer gives them more than they anticipate, not less.

Make big promises.  Then keep them.

4. Let the characters tell readers their plans.

I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t that give the ending away?

I’m not talking about revealing your secrets or letting readers know the twists that your story has in store. Instead, just show readers the agenda, and you’ll be making a promise that something will either go wrong to screw up the schedule, or that plans will fall into place in a way that propels the story (and the tension) forward.

Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedules, you create a promise that can create anticipation and build suspense:

•         “All right, here’s what I have lined up for the rest of the morning: Follow up on the fingerprints, track down Adrian, and then stop by the prison and have a little chat with Donnie ‘The Midnight Slayer’ Jackson.”

A story moves through action sequences to moments of reorientation when the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. We do this in real life as well—we experience something moving or profound, we process it, and then we decide how to respond. Problem is, in those moments of reflection, a story can drag and the suspense can be lost. During every interlude between scenes a promise must be either made or kept.

And, if you resolve one question or plot thread (that is, you keep a promise you made earlier), introduce another twist or moral dilemma (in other words, make another promise).

When a story lags it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making it even more difficult to get.

5. Cut down on the violence.

The more violence there is, the less it will mean.

A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.

The scariest stories often contain very little violence.

And, of course, different genre elements dictate different means of suspense. In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.

Reader expectations, and the depth and breadth of what is at stake in the story, will determine the amount of mystery, horror or suspense you’ll want to include. Nearly all genres include some scenes with them. As a writer, it’s vital that you become aware of how you shape those sequences to create the desired effect on your reader—curiosity, dread or apprehension.

Also, remember that valuing human life increases suspense. Because readers only feel suspense when they care about what happens to a character, we want to heighten their concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. Show how valuable life is. The more murders your story contains, the more life will seem cheap, and if it’s cheap, readers don’t need to be concerned if it’s lost.

6. Be one step ahead of your readers.

Here are some ways to amp up the suspense:

→ As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. (Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a cobra is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all snakes is.) Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

→ Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the storyIn other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

→ Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

→ As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

→ Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let Grandma live there.

No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense. Follow these six secrets, and you’ll keep your readers up way past their bedtime.”

Deciding on the Point of View

There is an article of the Writer’s Digest website, ‘Writing Multiple Points of View’ by Wendy Heard which caught my attention because the novel I’m completing now will have two narrators.  Ms Heard holds a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, emphasising painting, and a Master’s degree in Education.  She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America, is a contributor at Crimereads.com, and co-hosts the Unlikable Female Characters podcast.

Wendy Heard

Ms Heard says, “When a story calls for more than one narrator, it’s exciting (at first). In a way, starting a new book is like diving into a new relationship—a potentially abusive relationship with a high-maintenance narcissist who demands you spend every moment obsessing about them.  I’ve now been in two multiple points of view relationships, one with The Kill Club, a thriller released December 2019, and one with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, a YA thriller out in 2021. Going through the rounds of revisions on these two projects taught me a lot, and I hope what I’ve learned is useful to you.  That said, let’s dive into some suggestions I have for writing multiple POV projects.

  1. Determine your primary POV.

Even if you have just a couple of narrators, one of them will likely carry the theme of the book and serve as the dominant POV. I spent a lot of time figuring this out with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, where I had dual narrators with almost the same amount of real estate. If you’re not sure who your primary narrator should be, consider the logline for your book in terms of the following structure: “X person must do Y or [some bad thing] will happen.” For example, “Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort or the wizarding world will be ruined forever.” Sometimes putting your logline into this sentence frame will help determine who’s carrying the central conflict in the story.  In general, I’ve heard from many different people that it helps a reader orient themselves in a multiple POV story when the primary narrator goes first and gets Chapter One.

  1. Distinguish your characters’ voices.

First, figure out if you’d like to differentiate the POVs by making one first person and the other(s) third person, one past tense and the other(s) present tense, one limited and the other(s) omniscient, etc. Going back and forth between limited and omniscient in third person is high art, and I admire anyone who can pull it off.

Next, consider the characters themselves. If you have a character who is musical, they’ll likely be quite auditory and their descriptions of settings will include sounds as much as imagery. If you have a character who’s younger, their internal cultural references, comparisons, and slang will be different than an older character. If one character is a doctor, they might notice physical aspects of the people around them more than, say, a glass blower.

I’d also recommend journaling a list of sayings and phrases used by each character. As you do, consider making each character’s thinking style vastly different. One person can be more poetic, with longer sentences containing more clauses. Another character might be a more direct person who tells it exactly like it is with no embellishment. The more work you do here, the more authentically each of these voices will read.

  1. When working with many points of view…

First of all, I recommend pouring a stiff drink and staring at your computer moodily. This is the only way to commence writing more than three points of view.

Some stories must be told from many perspectives. In this case, you’ve already determined who your protagonist will be, so now you’re trying to figure out how to fit all the other perspectives into the story. I was in this position for The Kill Club, and I developed a strategy that helped me stay organized: I considered the main character’s POV as the primary and all the other ones a secondary POV I called a “composite” POV. When I was outlining the book (see next bullet), I had one list of plot points and story beats for the protagonist and one for the composite, and I plugged narrators in based on who would be the best narrator for the story beat in question.

  1. Beat sheets and outlines for multiple POVs

I work with Save the Cat beat sheets, but I know there are many other outlining tools in use. Regardless of methodology, a question arises: How do I know which character should tell which part of the story?

I’d advocate for giving the largest story beats to your protagonist. If the heart of the book happens away from your hero and with someone else, the question begs to be asked: why not make that other person the hero?

Some other things I’d advocate for doing in your protagonist’s POV: major relational beats, plot-altering twists (unless the point of the twist is that you’re showing something that will add suspense if hidden from the protagonist), thematic beats, and moments that could contribute to character development if given to the hero.

If you have dual POVs, with both being almost equally weighted, I’d recommend huge plot points such as the inciting incident, the midpoint, and the dark night of the soul happen in both perspectives. If possible, the two narrators could be in scene together when these moments happen, or, if they’re carrying parallel narratives, such as in past/present tense books, they could each experience separate major plot points.

It’s important to remember that all POV characters need to go through a full plot, and the character growth needs to be well-developed in each, even if they only get a handful of chapters. By designating someone as a point of view character, you’ve said they are crucial to the reader’s experience of this story. This brings me to my final piece of advice.

  1. Sometimes, maybe it’s not necessary.

I wrote a book that started out as multiple POVs and ended up a single-narrator project. Sometimes, after you’ve sat with the outline for a minute, you might realize that being inside the head of one of these characters, or some of them, is not necessary for a reader to fully experience this story. While it’s hard to reconsider the structure of a project once you’ve fallen in love with it, just like in relationships, it’s important to be open to all possibilities in those early drafting stages. Readers can sometimes find themselves bored or alienated by extra points of view.”

This discussion was interesting to me as it was suggested that having two POV’s in the novel I’m currently working on, instead of a single narrative by the protagonist, could increase the tension in the story.  This turns out to be correct, particularly as the two POV characters are very different, but they share a common interest in telling the story.

Creative Writing Classes

I have decided to take two courses on creative writing at City Academy in London.  One is a full week, full day (10-5) class in advanced creative writing.  In addition to providing the students with a sharper writing tool kit, it covers the specific skills of novel writing, script writing (film or television) and play writing.  There is a good deal of emphasis on creative techniques and structure.  There were four instructors on this course, all of them freelance writers, some of them take commissions from the BBC and one is a children’s book writer.  All of us (six) on this course were impressed with both the knowledge of the tutors and their skills in transferring the knowledge to us.  We completed many specific writing assignments in class, ranging from five to twenty minutes, and we would read out our work to the class.

The other class is on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 for six weeks.  This course is taught by the head of the creative writing department, who is script writer for Casualty on BBC1.  As such, he has a flair for drama.  This course is designed to help students progress or design a piece of creative writing.  There are five students in this course; I am the only male (aside from the tutor).  One woman in her early 30’s has finished writing a middle grade children’s book about a child who is disappointed in her own achievements.  A woman in her 50’s has a musical which has been performed somewhere locally and involves repercussions from Vietnam.  These two are making final corrections.  A woman in her late late 30’s has some ideas for a novel about two female friends, one of whom has a father who has strangely reappeared.  And the other student, in her 20’s, is trying to develop ideas for a novel.  And I am there with a completed manuscript about a man who is preoccupied with fears of his death.  Agents say it is well written, it has three good reviews, but nobody has said ‘yes’, and one agent said that in needs more intensity.

So I outlined the novel last Wednesday, including the concern about intensity.  I also presented my list of ideas for ramping up the intensity.  Almost immediately, the tutor said, why don’t you make the relationship between the protagonist and his grandniece the centerpiece of the novel, having them tell the story rather than the protagonist alone.  At first, I thought, Oh, God another rewrite!, but then it began to make sense.  The current structure of the novel is around a timeline which tends to dilute the intensity of the relationships.  But, if the two narrators cover and debate each of the relationships in depth, in series, it will be much more intense.

So next Wednesday, I’ve been asked to bring a revised outline to the class.  What this involves is taking all the events of each relationship, and grouping them together sequentially, rather than allowing them to be strung out along the time line.

This will, of course involve some re-writing, some new material and deleting some existing material.  But I’m looking forward to it.

Breaking Grammar Rules

The Digital Reader had a piece on their website entitled: “Infographic: 15 Grammar Rules You Learned in School That You Can Break With Impunity”

 

I’ve picked out some of the more interesting ones below.

  1. Never end a sentence with a preposition:  This one is from the ark and is probably the most broken rule because of how formal sentences become when the rule is followed.  For example: “From where do you come?”
  2. Know the difference between who and whom:  Who refers to the subject of the sentence and whom refers to the object.  In colloquial speech, it is common, but incorrect to ask; “Who did you invite?”
  3. Never describe a singular noun with a plural pronoun: An exception could be, “Somebody left their hat on the train” – when the gender of the somebody is unknown.
  4. Use the correct verbal agreement for a collective noun:  Collective nouns describe groups of things acting as a single identity: swarms of bees; teams of people – “The team is going out to lunch”.  “None of us is invited to the wedding.”  Right but sounds wrong.
  5. Do not split infinitives: Infinitives are verbs in their most basic form, usually preceded by to.  But the following is OK: “She tried to quickly think of an awesome sentence.”
  6. Avoid vague pronouns:  For example: “When Jess picked up her baby sister, she was so happy.”  Was it Jess or here sister who was made happy?
  7. Use That and Which correctly:  That and Which are both relative pronouns that introduce clauses; the difference being That introduces a non-specific clause, and Which introduces a specific clause.  A specific clause specifies the identity of the noun to which it refers; a non-specific clause only provides more information.
  8. Use the correct personal pronoun:  Me, myself and I all describe oneself but cannot be used interchangeably.  I is the subject of the sentence; me is the object.  Myself is a reflexive pronoun when the subject and the object are the same.  Example: “Sue smiled at herself in the mirror.”
  9. Use Farther for physical distance and Further for figurative distance:  Example:  “We had run farther today to catch up with out teammates who were further along in the training schedule.”
  10. Use Fewer and Less correctly:  Fewer is an adjective used to quantify nouns that can be counted; whereas Less is an adjective used to quantify intangible nouns that can’t be counted.  Example@ “Fewer coins, but less money.”
  11. Into is directional, In To is a verb phrase:  Example: “Breaking into the museum” should be written as “Breaking in to the museum.”

And three rules that should never be broken:

  1. Apostrophes:  Apostrophes show possession and contractions and that’s all!
  2. Affect vs Effect:  Affect is a verb; Effect is a noun.
  3. Don’t make us new words, unless your name is Shakespeare.  Some linguists believe that English has up to 300,000 distinctly usable words.

Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, published a post on her blog, https://ellenbrockediting.com, with this title on February 16, 2015, but it is still timely.  She works with about 150 authors per year as editor, plot consultant and writing coach.

Ellen Brock

She said, “It’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.”

Here is where she says many of these bad books come from:

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A ‘Catchy’ or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept That Is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.”

I think it would be very interesting to spend a couple of days with an experienced and successful acquisition editor, looking at synopses and samples of novels s/he has rejected, and discussing the rationale for rejection.  It would also be interesting to understand her/his evaluation of why a published novel failed.

How Long Does It Take to Publish a First Book?

Lucy Ayrton was featured on the Jericho Writers blog recently with her story about the time it took to get her first book published.  Lucy’s debut novel, One More Chance, is out 28th June (ebook and audio) and 15th November 2018 (paperback) with Dialogue Books. The novel follows the story of Dani, a London prison inmate, and combines physiological suspense with contemporary women’s fiction.

How long does it take to publish your first book

“The first time I thought I’d finished my novel was in November 2015. It was 80,000 words and it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and I’d given it to some friends for feedback and made some minor changes. I was DONE. Well done, me!

I sent it off to a couple of competitions and put my feet up, resolving to send it to some agents in the new year. I felt very, very pleased with myself.

The next time I thought I’d finished my novel was the summer of 2016.

I’d been shortlisted for one of the prizes I entered and had some feedback from agents and publishers. I’d done a rewrite, swallowed my pride, deleted a load of my beautiful, precious words to make way for new ones, and done another proof.

I mean … NOW I was done, right?

The next time was the spring of 2017. I had found a brilliant agent who loved my book and had some ideas of how to make it even better. We had worked on it together, tweaking, making changes, polishing and rearranging. Now, it was the eve of the London Book Fair and we were officially ready to send it out on submission. The book was surely finished.

In September that year I started working with my publisher and editor. Of course, the fact that “editor” is a job title should have tipped me off that she may want me to spend further time on the work. I was really happy about the changes that we were making together! It was exciting to be nearly finished.

In October that year I discovered that line edits were different to structural edits.

In November I discovered that copy edits are different again.

In January this year, I was sent a fully typeset manuscript to proofread. My book, typeset! Now for real it was done, hurray!

All I would have to do, I was sure, was have a quick skim through to make sure it was all in order – something I had done many times before – tell them it was all okay, and we were off. I set aside a whole day to do this, which seemed excessive. I figured I would probably be able to knock off and go to the pub mid-afternoon.

In late March, after a fair few back and forths and me spending an entire panicked weekend staring at a text, believing myself to have forgotten how to read. (Professional proofreaders spend FIFTY HOURS with a novel, guys! It turns out you can’t knock it out in a long afternoon.) I got an email from my production manager. She said that this was the very last round of edits, and that after this one, we wouldn’t make any more changes – it would be sent to the printers. It would finally and truly be done.

As I emailed back the approval, I didn’t feel as triumphant as I thought I would. I felt a little bit sad, almost scared. I’d spent so long with that book, with my protagonist and in my world. I didn’t really want to let her go. I love that book. What if I couldn’t write anything as good ever again? I almost didn’t want to sign the proofs off.

But I did it. I hit send, and I turned back to my work in progress. And over the next couple of weeks, I found I had a lot of energy on this new project. It seems so unlikely that a scrappy little manuscript will ever come to anything, but I think this one can. I know I could do it again, you see, because I’ve done it before.

I’ve finally finished a novel.”

Editing Isn’t Easy (for the author)

I have finished the manuscript for my latest novel.  I’ve read and re-read it several times, always finding small things that needed to be improved.

It was time to call in a professional editor, and I wanted a good one.  The editor who worked on Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives didn’t seem to understand that there were three narrators: a universal narrator, God’s representative, and the devil’s representative.  She objected repeatedly when the latter two infrequently appeared, even though each of them introduced himself (or herself) on their first appearances.  This lack of understanding seemed to colour her experience of the novel in a negative way.  Only one of the reviews since publication has disliked this device.  One was almost ecstatic about it.  From my point of view, it didn’t take a great deal of brainpower to figure it out.

Author or Editor?

So, finding a good editor isn’t easy, even though there are literally thousands of them who have set out their shingles on the Internet.  I started off trying one of the ubiquitous websites that promises all manner of help for the Indie writer.  Their offering was that they have a stable of scores of editors, and that all I had to do was specify the type of editing, and the genre of the novel.  I didn’t want copy editing (spelling, punctuation and basic grammar), and I didn’t need a re-write editor.  What I wanted was a structural editor, who would pay attention to what could be deleted, what should be added or clarified.  My input yielded the names of five editors.  To each of them I sent a message: “Yes, tell me more!”  All five of them declined; some for workload reasons; some for “don’t do that genre” reasons.

At that point, I threw the Indie approach out the window, and started looking at professional editing websites.  Having narrowed it down to one website, there were two named editors, both of whom liked working on inspirational novels, and both had glowing testimonials.  I sent each of them the synopsis.  The woman said she would take a month longer than the man.  They both were charging $0.03 per word.  I went with the man, who was enthusiastic about working on a novel about fear of dying.

The editor overran his completion target by two weeks, but he sent me several “almost finished” emails.  Then, he wanted my postal address to send me the physical edited manuscript.  There was no soft copy.  He offered to get it scanned for an extra hundred dollars.  The problem for me is that I spend the summer in Sicily, which has a third world postal service.  It took two more weeks for the physical manuscript to arrive.

I found it somewhat easier to make corrections from the physical manuscript, with the original soft copy on my laptop than to switch back and forth between copies on my laptop.

The editor was very conscientious about use of commas (I use too many); he frequently broke my long sentences into two (I generally felt he was right); he corrected my use of ‘that’ vs ‘which’ (as a result, I’ve learned the ‘that vs which rule’); he put a full stop after each abbreviated title (Dr. vs Dr).  Actually, in the UK we don’t put a full stop after Mr.; it’s always just Mr; perhaps he should have asked, because the manuscript is set in London.

He commented when a point in the text wasn’t clear, and usually, I would make a clarification.  Exception: when he challenged a character’s statement to her husband that he had determined the gender of their unborn child.  I left the text unchanged and pointed out to the editor that the male sperm determines the child’s sex, the egg is neutral.

Occasionally, he would suggest that I show the emotion a character is feeling, rather than just have him/her express it.  Being a relatively non-emotive person, I have let the characters say what they feel, but gradually I have realised that it deepens the reader’s experience to have a character express and show her feelings.

The most difficult part for me was the very frequent suggestion to ‘skip this’ of ‘drop this character’.  The compromise I worked out was that I would eliminate the social, chit-chat portions of dialogue that make it seem more real but don’t add any value for the reader.  I also scrutinised scenes to eliminate portions which seemed real, but added no value.

Here is what I said in my email to him: “You made a number of recommendations to cut scenes and characters on the basis that they tended to “stop” the story/plot.  Leaving aside that to do so would have reduced the manuscript to a sub-saleable size, your advice seems to imply that a fictional biography has a linear story/plot.  I would argue that no one has a linear life; rather, it is a collection of kaleidoscopic experiences and characters that, in the end, make us who we are.

“I have tried to structure Fear of Dying with Bertie’s fear of death as the central theme, and with three supporting themes which converge on the central theme and moderate it.  The supporting themes are Bertie’s views and feelings about family, vocation and faith.  Having read the manuscript through an extra time, I’m confident that every scene and every character supports the development of at least one of the supporting themes.  If I had a doubt about the relevance of a scene or character, I had Bertie express his view.”

His response was to the effect of “it’s your novel, you decide.”

So, my next hurdle is finding an agent.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal

We Need to Talk About Children’s Books in a Grown Up Way

There was an article in the Evening Standard on 28 January with the above title written by Katie Law, an ES journalist, covering the views of Lauren Child, the best-selling author-illustrator and current Children’s Laureate, on the problems faced by children’s books.

Lauren Child

Law says: “Lauren Child thinks children’s book publishing still gets a bad deal. It’s one of the reasons she is so happy to be a judge for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize ‘There’s still a lot of snootiness about children’s books. Just look at the teeny-weeny percentage that get reviewed compared to adults. It’s as if there’s a kind of hierarchy.’

“Child is best known for her books featuring Clarice Bean, Charlie and Lola (who became a TV series), Ruby Redfort and Hubert Horatio, which together have sold more than five million copies worldwide. In the two decades since we first met quirky, snub-nosed Clarice Bean and her chaotic, trendy family, her legions of original fans have become adults. ‘The most touching experience in my whole career is talking to grown-ups who tell me what the book meant to them when they were growing up,’ says Child, 53. ‘It’s why I’m so passionate about the idea that children’s book writing and illustrating should get more recognition, and why prizes like Oscar’s Book Prize are so important, because there is so little coverage. We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?’

“Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden — all of which she has illustrated — were the books that had the most profound effect on Child when she was growing up. ‘The Secret Garden was a gamechanger because it was about someone who was so hard to like. She was plain, had a horrible expression on her face, was bossy and ungrateful. As a child I felt like her, I felt all of those things. I felt it was me. So for children who might think bad things about themselves, these stories can help let them off the hook. It’s all a drip-drip effect, which is why it’s important we talk about children’s books in a grown-up way, in terms of what they’re about, rather than just saying ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

Clarice Bean

“Ms Child says: ‘We’re great at giving prizes for unusual adults’ books but not so good at praising people who have different ideas about children’s books; things need to be a bit more extraordinary.’ Her own trajectory is a great example: Clarice Bean only took off when she stopped trying to please her publishers. ‘I was young and kept trying to do what they wanted and getting it wrong, so every time I rewrote or redrew something, it would get more dead. It had none of me in it, so quite rightly they rejected it. I actually started writing Clarice Bean as a film and forgot about all the things you need to make a book, and that’s when the publishers suddenly became interested. It’s about the need to reject everything you think they want and find your own voice.’

“The National Literacy Trust finds that one in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own a book (a figure that rises to one in eight children on free school meals), and that book ownership is one of the highest predictors of reading attainment and mental well-being.

“Child grew up in Wiltshire in a happy family not unlike Clarice Bean’s. Today she lives in north London with her partner, criminal barrister Adrian Darbishire, and their daughter Tuesday, now nearly nine, whom she adopted from Mongolia at the age of two-and-a-half after visiting the country as part of a Unesco project.  ‘Having Tuesday doesn’t change the way I write or illustrate but it does make me see more than ever how important illustration is. We had no common language when she arrived. But we did have drawing, and she was a natural right from the start, which really helped us communicate. It’s important for children that their drawings are looked at and that it has a wide role in education because it’s about learning to observe and understand, just like creative writing, and having these skills can make you much more empathetic.'”

I particularly agree with what Ms Child says about book publishers: they don’t know what they want, but when they find something eclectic that is well-written and full of the author’s passion, they go for it.

 

Doing Whatever It Takes

There is an article by Sandra Wendel which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  Ms Wendel is an experienced book editor who specializes in helping authors write, polish, and publish their manuscripts; she gives the following example of “doing whatever it takes” as an editor.  Her website is https://www.sandrawendel.com/.

 

Sandra - headshot 082918.JPG

Sandra Wendel

“After working his way up through the ranks in narcotics and homicide, putting plenty of bad guys in prison, and retiring from exemplary work on the Omaha Police Department, detective Brian Bogdanoff sat down to write a story.”  (A true story of two bad guys who stole tons of marijuana from three Mexican drug minions, shot the three and burned their bodies along the roadside near Omaha.)

“Brian and I met in a book-writing class I was teaching at the community college. The manuscript he brought me read like a police report with words like “vehicles,” “perpetrators,” and “victims.” So I invited him to my home office, sat him down, and we began.

“He had written:

As I spoke with each of them separately, I could see nobody wanted to talk yet, so I made it very clear to Preston and Gaylan that I was a homicide detective, not a narcotics officer, and this case that brought me to them was just getting started.

As if he were on the hot seat in an interrogation room, I grilled him: “What did Gaylan look like?” “What was he doing?” “What exactly did he say?” “And then what did you say?” “Describe the room—how big, furniture, what?”


Here’s the revision of the same passage:


Gaylan was first. If someone was going to talk, I thought it would be Gaylan.

I walked into a fourth-floor interview room of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at downtown police headquarters. Gaylan was sitting at the same table where he’d been sitting for nine hours while we were searching his house, the recording studio, the lawn service, the remaining storage units, and his secondary houses.

His head was down, he looked up at me and said, “What’s up, man?”

He’s a big guy, twenty-four years old, and was tired from sitting in a ten-by-ten room all day. He wasn’t handcuffed, but there was a guard outside the door.

“You got big problems.” I opened the conversation. “I got a receipt and inventory of all the stuff we recovered today, and it doesn’t look good.” I handed him a list of the property seized.

“I’m a homicide cop, and that’s what this is all about, so you might be in your best position right now to tell me what you know,” I said. “If someone else wants to talk first, they’ll get all the good things that come with it.” And he chose not to talk.

I gave the same spiel to Preston. He had the same attitude. He wasn’t talking.

Roscoe and I then walked Gaylan to the jail elevator and rode it to the basement of the police station. We put our guns in the gun locker and walked him into jail. He was booked in for his marijuana charges and taken to his concrete ten-by-ten cell in solitary confinement, which on the street has earned the name Bedrock.

We did the same procedure for Preston.

“And the story came out, excruciating detail by detail, so readers could go inside the mind of this talented detective and follow his story from crime scene to courtroom, gasping when blood was found under the carpet of a home, unbeknownst even to the current residents. Readers followed the thread of a note found in the pocket of one of the burned bodies to the hotel where the cartel guys stayed.

“We described more key scenes with fresh detail and dialogue. And then we went to the crime scenes themselves where I took photos of the roadside burn site where religious artifacts had still been left presumably by grieving family five years later; to the yellow house where the gangbangers shot the Mexicans and loaded their bodies into a pickup that left a dripping blood trail down the street; to the neighborhood where the bangers lived that didn’t feel safe even at two in the afternoon with an armed police officer giving the guided tour.

“We gathered yet more detail, so I could add pertinent facts and observations. That’s what an editor does.”

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

The moral of this article is that it takes a different mentality to be a good homicide detective, than the mentality of a writer who can make the detective’s story come alive in the mind of the reader.